The horrors of drug abuse have had the pleasure of being documented on film for nearly a hundred years. While most of these films are thinly veiled social commentary, others mask their message in a true artistic expression of cinema. Somewhere in between Reefer Madness and Requiem for a Dream sits a weird little horror film from 1972 called Blood Freak which tries to do both – yet accomplishes neither.
Blood Freak is the story of Herschell (Steve Hawkes, best known for being one of many actors who have played Tarzan), a straight-laced Vietnam veteran who, after helping out a girl named Angel (Flesh Feast’s Heather Hughes) with a flat tire, finds himself at a house full of drug users with Angel’s sister, Ann (Dana Cullivan in her one and only screen appearance). Ann finds herself attracted to Hershell and, after a little coaxing, convinces him to smoke some dope with her, getting him instantly addicted. However, going to the party does turn out to be a good move for Hershcell because he is offered a job at one of the partygoers’ turkey farm, a position which he badly needs. He shows up to work and is recruited to test out some genetically modified turkey. The combination of the dope from the party and the altered food turns Herschell into a monster, a bird-headed humanoid that thirsts for the blood of drug addicts. Herschell begins to stalk, hunt and murder people, hanging them upside down and drinking up their blood. Ann is not ready to give up on Herschell, however, and desperately tries to find a way to “cure” him of his ailment.
Blood Freak is a good idea that seems to stop there – at the idea. Written, produced and directed by Hawkes and Brad F. Grinter (Flesh Feast), both the technical and creative aspects of the film are so laughably bad that they border on genius. Because the film’s financing fell apart right before production started, Blood Freak goes beyond low budget; it is no-budget, and it’s a testament to the fortitude of Hawkes and Grinter they were able to put together a coherent film at all. Blood Freak makes the films of Roger Corman and Ed Wood look like Hollywood blockbusters by comparison, and that’s why it’s so awesome.
Hawkes and Grinter seem to use whatever resources are at their disposal at any given time to make Blood Freak. Hawkes himself plays Herschell, the lead, and Grinter busies himself playing the narrator, a chain-smoking rambling man who coughs more than he speaks and whose segments seem to convolute the story rather than advance it. The rest of the “actors” are all theater student friends of Grinter and, although some are decent and others are abysmal, the inexperience of every one of them shines through. Several of them seem to be reading cue cards or simply reciting memorized lines rather than acting, and it distracts from the already fragile believability of a film about a guy who turns into a giant turkey. The behind-the-camera crew is not any more talented, as many of the shots are out of focus and poorly lit. The editing has dozens of continuity errors and jump cuts, confusing the viewer into thinking that something is wrong with the movie transfer. And the sound track, in between the same two human scream effects that are used, has a constant room hiss that, if the viewer listens carefully, is interrupted now and then by the director’s voice calling “action” or telling an actor to “get up slowly.” The film’s quality is worse than most modern student films, but the rough edges are what make Blood Freak so memorable. Blood Freak screams to the viewer that “you can do this, too,” and the audience loves the film for it.
Another classic no-budget element of Blood Freak is its visual effects. Again, working with little-to-no money, Hawkes and Grinter had to improvise a little. Herschell’s turkey head looks like a junior high school art class project, appearing more like the mascot for the Philadelphia Eagles than a killer turkey. The blood looks to be closer to the consistency of paint than actual blood, but there is plenty of the bright red stuff flowing. There is a great scene where Herschell-Turkey cuts a man’s leg off with a table saw – a scene in which an actual amputee was used as an actor – that captures the spirit of the film; the man’s leg is cut off, gore squirts from the stump while Herchell-Turkey laps up the blood. Even with no financing, Hawkes and Grinter ended up with a film so gory and violent that it originally received an X rating. Only after the excision of a few gratuitously bloody scenes did Blood Freak earn its R.
The story of Blood Freak is, although unnecessarily silly, pretty standard for the old school anti-drug films. The straight square gets addicted to drugs after one use and goes on a murderous rampage, killing everyone he comes across. Although the mutant turkey element of the narrative is both creative and unrealistic, the drugs-are-bad message is clear. With its villainous portrayal of drug users and poor production quality, Blood Freak has deservedly earned a spot next to Reefer Madness and Cocaine Fiends in the hall of fame of anti-drug films; films that are so ludicrously far-fetched that they have been embraced by campy film fans and the drug culture alike as essential viewing.
Blood Freak is not going to win any awards, but it has still developed a strong cult flowing. The film is such a turkey that it’s become traditional Thanksgiving viewing for many horror fans. But, viewers beware: this turkey might bite back.